I’ve had more than one conversation over the past several years about whether pharmaceutical companies were “ready” for structured content. After all, many of the benefits of structured content roll up into one key business need: scale. And scale — the ability to produce a lot of content quickly, accurately, and affordably — is a growing concern for pharma companies. 

A Matter of Scale

Pharma companies produce truly enormous amounts of content. This content includes vast amounts of data. Both data and content are produced by many people, in many sources of truth, over many months or years. They are under tremendous time pressure to get this information out as quickly as possible without compromising its accuracy or missing a piece.

One of the primary ways that structured content enables companies to scale is through strategic content reuse. With structured content, you can eliminate unnecessary redundancy from your content and from your processes. Instead, you can reuse the exact right piece of content, everywhere you need to provide that exact right piece of information.

Pharma content has a lot of opportunity for content reuse. There’s reuse across clinical reports. There’s reuse across labeling. There’s reuse across education, marketing, and even manufacturing. The demand for more transparency in drug research and development has pharma companies producing more consumer-facing communications (such as clinical trial lay summaries), all of which have high potential for content reuse.

With the right reuse strategy and system support, much of this reuse can be automated. So can the flow of data into the content. So can the assembly, formatting, and production of the final document. Structured content and strategic content reuse allow you to streamline content operations at every stage, from creation through review, revision, approval, updates, and retirement.

For these reasons and more, you’d think pharma would have been first in line to adopt structured content, 10 or 15 or even 20 years ago. Except, they couldn’t be. 

While pharma content would have benefited from structure from the beginning, pharma companies could not afford to take the risk of transforming their content operations to an entirely different content paradigm.

Why Is Pharma Content So Challenging?

Pharmaceutical companies face the same content challenges as any other industry, and then some

Here are some common scenarios everyone shares:

  • Takes too long to create, approve, and deliver content
  • Cannot leverage or reuse content across documents
  • Cannot leverage or share content across organizational silos
  • Cannot manage the high volume of variations and versions
  • Wasted time in manual formatting and reformatting of content 
  • Wasted time in “copy, paste, and tweak” of old content
  • Have too much content
  • Have too little content
  • Have the right amount but the wrong content
  • Can’t find content that needs to be updated
  • Can’t retire content in an efficient, strategic way

And here are some additional scenarios that keep pharma’s content teams up at night:

  • Time – Pharma companies are under tremendous time pressure to produce a ton of content as part of getting their products to market. Why the hurry? Their patents (legal ownership of the molecule, the manufacturing process, etc.) and their periods of exclusivity (how much time they have before competitors can introduce identical or similar drugs) depend in part on how quickly they can get through all the “paperwork” and receive health authority approvals.
  • Regulations – Few industries must meet as many regulatory requirements as pharmaceutical companies. And a drug CANNOT be released until all required content is approved by health authorities. (Of which there are many — I stopped counting at 75. Every country has its own regulations and its own set of standards that must be met before the health authority can approve the submission.)
  • Data – A large portion of pharmaceutical content must be accompanied by — or simply is — data. Data is so essential to pharma content that an entire software industry has emerged to provide databases and data governance systems just for managing pharmaceutical data.
  • Tradition – Other industries mostly followed a publishing paradigm similar to book, magazine, or newspaper production before adopting structured content. Pharma comes from an academic and scientific research model. The early structured content management systems assumed a book publishing paradigm and did not easily accommodate pharma’s model.

It’s no wonder that until very recently, pharma content teams were skeptical about the promises of structured content.

But that’s changing. 

It’s About Time

Structured content is no longer in its infancy. Some really (really) big companies in other major industries have made the switch to structured content, transforming content from a slow and expensive burden to a fast and valuable asset. They have even successfully expanded their content strategies and structured content management systems to multiple organizational silos. (I am proud to say that Content Rules has had a hand in these extensible unified content strategies!) 

Thanks in part to these early adopters, the structured content ecosystem has stabilized. The principles are solid. The systems are mature. The methodologies are tested and proven again and again, across all industries and all types of content.

In recent years, leaders from several pharma companies have realized that the infrastructure of structured content has matured enough to support pharma’s unique needs. I’m working with a few of these people right now and let me tell you — now that they’ve decided it is time, they’re moving with lightning speed. (It might not seem that way to those in the middle of the journey, but trust me, you’re getting there pretty darn fast.)

Every company that has experienced a digital transformation knows that it’s not as simple as rolling out a new system and telling everyone to use it. Yet if you do it right — define your business requirements, develop your strategy, implement your tools, and support people with excellent change management — the business reaps benefits right from the start. Incremental wins along the way help keep everyone motivated to stay on the path.

It’s the same with content transformation. As pharma moves into structured content at last, they stand to reap benefits from the very beginning. Each incremental win helps build momentum toward even bigger future wins.

The question is not whether pharma is ready for structured content. The real question is, is structured content ready for pharma?

The answer, at last, is yes.

Regina Lynn Preciado